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PRINT November 2018

The Price of Intimacy

The German writer and ethnographer Hubert Fichte (1935–1986) refused the constraints of custom and genre: His books combine autobiography, journalism, critique, and poetic avant-gardism with an ethnological practice that rejected the idea that research could be “pure.” Besides focusing on hunger, torture, human rights, and bisexuality, he made travel central to his work, turning his back on post-fascist Germany and increasingly spending time in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean in pursuit of encounters with and the study of non-European cultures. His dream, meanwhile, was of a global gay utopia. The political implications of this combination are complicated; Fichte tried to address them through a third-person alter ego who makes possible both incisive self-critique and reflections on its lack. His work is thus a precursor and an irritant to current debates in postcolonial and queer studies, as well as theories of identity politics and artistic research.Since 2017, Diedrich Diederichsen and curator Anselm Franke (with many partners and collaborators) have been organizing a multiyear project titled “Love and Ethnology,” which involves translations of Fichte’s books as well as exhibitions and events in locations where they are set. So far, the venues include Lisbon; Rio de Janeiro; Salvador de Bahia, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; and Dakar, Senegal, which will be followed by New York this December and a major exhibition and conference at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt next fall. Diederichsen and Franke seek both to reverse the relationship between Fichte and his subjects across the distances of time and place and to situate his work within the context of post-1968 experimentalism. Here, Diederichsen reflects on the contradictions generated in Fichte’s writing and how they can be made productive today. If the question is, What can we learn from Fichte? the right place to start is with that thorny word we.

Hubert Fichte and Peter Michel Ladiges, 1974. Photo: Leonore Mau. © bpk/S. Fischer Stiftung/Leonore Mau.

Writing the way you speak

A kind of diary—ten years after the events

An interview with myself

Skillfully spontaneous

Whatever else, no art

Superficiality

No psychological coherence

No equivalents


—Hubert Fichte, Hotel Garni (1987)

WE WHO WISHED to prepare the ground for decolonization remained colonial ourselves. This variation on Bertolt Brecht’s famous line “We / Who wished to lay the foundation for gentleness / Could not ourselves be gentle” applies to episode after episode in the history of European ethnology—not least among them the experimental and poetic attempts by Hubert Fichte to go beyond ethnological practices and overcome his Western, German background in an all-encompassing search for powerful and tender, sexual and sensitive encounters with people all over the world, writing about them mainly in novels but also in essays and radio plays. His preferred

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